Farmers of soybeans and other crops in southeast Missouri, western Tennessee and northeastern Arkansas are facing widespread crop damage believed to be the result of illegal spraying of dicamba, an older herbicide that is finding new life as a tool to battle glyphosate-resistant weeds.
In four Missouri Bootheel counties alone, more than 100 complaints of pesticide drift have been reported since June 22, according to a representative from the Missouri Department of Agriculture. For comparison, the department typically receives 75 to 80 complaints statewide in an entire year. Experts say that all signs point to dicamba as the culprit behind the surge.
“The symptoms match what we would expect coming out of dicamba,” said Kevin Bradley, an associate professor in the University of Missouri’s division of plant sciences, and a lead scientist for the university’s agricultural extension. Possible exposure to the herbicide has been officially reported on 40,000 acres of soybeans in the state, causing the plants’ leaves to pucker and potentially hurting yields across the region.
State investigations into each complaint are ongoing, but many suspect the problem stems from farmers who have planted Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans — a dicamba-resistant crop variety released this year by Creve Coeur-based Monsanto Co. But, the dicamba-based herbicide meant to be applied to Xtend seeds has not yet been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, leaving farmers without the tool intended to fight increasingly stubborn weeds that have developed resistance to other herbicides, like Roundup, which has glyphosate as its active ingredient.
Even without the corresponding herbicide, Monsanto began releasing the seeds because the company says they offered farmers attributes — such as improved yields — beyond dicamba tolerance. Monsanto officials reported that seeds for 1 million acres of soybeans have been sold with the technology this year, along with 3 million acres of cotton, introduced in 2015.
Some farmers, it appears, have taken matters into their own hands, spraying other forms of dicamba that are unauthorized for use with Xtend crops. This alleged “off-label” use of the herbicide leaves dicamba-resistant plants unharmed, but can drift into neighboring fields, either when blown by wind or when liquid particles turn to gas and spread as vapor.
“It basically boils down to the fact that you have a very sensitive crop in soybeans planted in close proximity to crops that are a GMO (genetically modified organism) that is able to withstand dicamba,” Bradley said. “And some people made dicamba applications, allegedly, and hurt people’s crops.”
Even low dicamba concentrations measuring in parts per million can damage non-GMO varieties of soybeans. That sensitivity has led companies like Monsanto to seek less volatile forms of the herbicide that do not vaporize as easily.
Monsanto says the Xtend-compatible dicamba still seeking approval offers that lower volatility than dicamba alternatives currently on the market. But in its absence, drift from suspected “bad actors” knowingly using unapproved substitutes is taking its toll.
Although dicamba damage can be seen visually, its ultimate effect on yields won’t be known until harvest. Whatever its impact, insurance companies have indicated that they will not compensate farmers for losses related to wrongful dicamba usage.
“That still doesn’t keep a person from suing personally and I’m afraid that’s what’s going to happen,” said Terry Weaver, a farmer near Holcomb, speculating on how some victims may resort to litigation to recover losses. But linking diminished yields directly to dicamba — and to a specific wrongdoer on top of that — could be difficult.
“The problem with dicamba is it travels so easily and so far that it’s hard to pinpoint where it actually came from,” said Kade McBroom, a farmer and the operator of Malden Specialty Soy, a processing facility for non-GMO soybeans in the area. “That burden of proof can get kind of tricky.”
Many farmers have said that there are not sufficient penalties in place to deter illegal use of herbicides, likening the current $1,000 fine — enforced by the state Department of Agriculture — to a slap on the wrist.
“If the speeding ticket’s $5, why worry about it,” Weaver said. “If they get a clean field, that’s a whole lot cheaper than getting it clean with hand-hoeing.”
While calling the behavior “selfish,” Weaver said that illegal dicamba application was a predictable outcome when farmers can spray a field for a fraction of the cost that it would take to manually remove Roundup-resistant nuisances like pigweed.
State Rep. Don Rone, R-Portageville, said he will introduce legislation that would give “more teeth” to penalties for off-label herbicide use. But some worry that harsher fines — which would require legislative approval in 2017 — will not emerge soon enough.
“(Farmers) feel like there’s not going to be very much repercussion for the damage done this year, so they’re expecting to see it again next year,” said McBroom, who has had suppliers to his non-GMO soy business say that they may switch to Xtend seeds just to ensure that they have a crop next year.
If enough growers feel pressured to follow suit, McBroom says that the diversity of agriculture in the Bootheel could be severely compromised, noting that other local crops like peaches, melons and tomatoes have also been affected.
“Anytime you take away options, you take away opportunities,” McBroom said. “If we don’t do anything to stop this, it’s going to happen year after year until everyone’s planting dicamba-resistant crops or they’re not planting anything at all. ... That seems to be the path we’re on.”
He believes stamping out illegal spraying could be difficult — even with steeper fines and when the less-volatile dicamba hits the market. If just one farmer elects for an off-label but cheaper form of dicamba, then a wide radius of non-resistant plantings are at risk.
“I think it’s a little naive to think that 10 out of 10 farmers are going to do this properly every time,” McBroom said.
Dicamba, however, is here to stay as a key tool in modern agribusiness. The herbicide itself is not new, but the recent development of dicamba-resistant seeds is giving it newfound popularity.
Monsanto is ramping up its investment in dicamba, pouring $975 million into the expansion of a Louisiana facility that will produce it and aiming to supply 15 million acres of Xtend soybeans in the coming fiscal year. And with weeds strengthening their resistance to Roundup, some farmers see dicamba as a necessity.
“We’re using other chemicals but it’s not working very good, because (weeds) are immune to the Roundup and the old chemistry,” said Weaver, who added that having just one pigweed plant for every 2 feet of row crop can slash yields by 30 percent.
“For the American farmer to survive in this part of the country, we have got to have that technology and that herbicide.”
The EPA is reviewing public comments received on Monsanto’s new variety of dicamba, with the process expected to conclude by late summer or early fall. When used properly, the EPA states that dicamba use is not harmful to humans and does “not cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment.”
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